Last Minute Muley
by Rick Bin
"WAIT. DON'T SHOOT!"
The whisper came through the focus like a dull tap on a vault door. He clenched his teeth and eased off on the trigger.
"What the hell are you doing, Mike?" he hissed. His face remained glued to the cheekpiece, eyes locked on the sight picture through the scope. "You scare those near does, and this stalk is blown!"
"Just wait ... waaaaait a minute," the one named Mike crooned as he peered through the Zeiss for a few long moments. "Ohmygosh, I knew it. I got a buck. A real good one."
"Are you kidding me? Where?" Now the head was turned away from the rifle.
"Hang on. Ooohhh, I can barely see him. Just his antlers stickin' up outta the sage way out there. Oh, he's tall, man. He's got some stickers on one side. And he's heavy too. I can't tell how wide, but he's heavy and tall." Mike brought the glass down from his eyes and looked over.
"Geezus, Mike, it's getting late," said the hunter. "Can we even get to him?"
"I don't know, but you'd better have a look." Mike scrunched down into the tall grass at the edge of the stand of cottonwoods and held out the binos. "Look way out next to the fenceline, just to the right of those three posts. He's bedded down facing us, and you can just see his antlers sticking up out of the sage."
The hunter backed off from the rifle, leaving it propped up on the bipod, grabbed the glass, and slowly raised himself to a kneeling position. He first took a hard look at the deer he had intended to shoot. By all reckoning, he was a fine muley, just three-by-three, but dark-horned and heavy, with good eye-guards and wider than his ears. At 175 yards, it was as sure a shot as could be expected in this country. There were certainly better deer in the area, but with the end of the season looming, this was a hard buck to let walk.
Satisfied with the buck, he turned his attention to the second buck, looking for the reference points given by his partner.
"What fence, Mike?"
Mike's tone of voice was impatient. "Look way out beyond the sage flat, near where the piney hills begin."
A moment later, the hunter spoke low, "I still don't see a fence. Are you sure you're lookin' at a buck?"
Mike removed his own compact binoculars from his shirt front pocket and kneeled up.
"Okay, ready?" He waited a moment.
"See where the river bends and the cottonwoods jut out into the tall grass right here on our left? Now follow the grass patch to where the sage starts. Now go almost to the other side of the sage and look for where three fence posts kinda come together at the foot of those hills." And then, after a short pause, "Got 'em?"
"That fenceline? Are you crazy? That's gotta be a mile out. We'll never get there with this light!" The hunter lay back down to get behind the rifle.
"But do you see the buck?
"No, and I don't wanna see it. I'm shooting this closer one."
"Wait!" The whisper was sharp. "Just look at this buck first. Trust me."
He looked over at Mike and saw the expression behind the compact binos. Then he slowly kneeled back up and raised the glass.
"Well, where the hell is he?"
"Lined up just to the right of the fenceposts, bedded in the sage back towards us. His antlers almost look like branches, but I saw them move, and he's a good one!"
After a moment, "I don't see any..."
"There. Did you see him turn his head?"
The hunter spoke in a low voice.
"God bless, Mike. Now I see him." Then, a moment later, "Man, he is waaay out there." But he didn't lower the binoculars.
"Okay," said Mike, "now take a good look at him, and tell me he's not better than this three-by."
The hunter peered through the glass for a few long moments. Mike saw the buck turn his head once, then again. Even through his fading compacts, he knew the answer. He was going to comment on the ebbing light when the hunter spoke.
"Hell, Mike, we gotta cut this distance, and fast. And we gotta do it without scaring all these damn does. If they take off, they're gonna take that buck with 'em, and we'll never get a shot."
The hunter was about to move, but Mike placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Now, before we go, make real sure. If we don't get that buck, any regrets on passing on this three-by?"
The hunter looked down at the ground for a moment, then spoke in a low voice. "It would always remind me of that big buck laying in the sage." He looked up at Mike. "Screw the three-by."
Mike smiled. "I thought so." But the hunter was already moving back into the cover of the cottonwoods.
Eleven minutes later, the pair had made their way along the river to the point where the cottonwoods jutted into the clearing.
"See him?" asked Mike.
"Nope, and those does on the right still don't know we're here, but there's one or two out in the sage that keep lookin' this way."
"He was lined right up with those fenceposts from our last spot," said Mike, "and I doubt we spooked him. Let's make a beeline for them through this grass. We'll eat up as much ground as we can, and if we make it to the edge of the sage without spooking any of those ol' girls, we'll look for him again out there."
"About how far out would you say he is?" asked the hunter.
"Gotta be well over a thousand yards still," said Mike, "and we gotta move fast. We're gonna have to get though this grass on all fours. There's some bare patches we'll have to skirt, but I think we can manage them."
"Mike, I've been thinking that with this grass, and the way that sage looks over there, this bipod is pretty much useless. And I'm carrying all this crap in this pack, and it won't serve for a rest any better. Think we can find this spot in the dark?"
"You thinkin' it's time to ditch the gear?"
"I'm thinking if we don't play this right, we're gonna spook the whole lot of 'em and run outta light both."
Mike peeked up above the cover, looked around for a moment, and then lowered himself.
"We're gonna have a decent moon, and all we gotta do is follow a straight line from the bend. Might take us a while, but we should be able to do it." He thought a moment. "Okay, give me some of that orange flagging, and let's do this quick." He looked over at the hunter. "And don't forget your tag, some cord, and your knife."
The hunter looked up quickly and saw the look in Mike's eye.
"You think we're gonna get this boy, Mike?"
Mike spoke over his shoulder as he began tying flagging to the tops of grass bunches. "We just might if you can shoot that thing."
The hunter was lying on his back getting out of his daypack below the line of the brush. He didn't respond.
They were almost at the edge of the grass now, crab-crawling forward with the hunter behind Mike, both anxious to get to the sage, when a loud snort broke through the crawling sounds, followed by a rush of hoofbeats.
"Aw, damn it," he heard Mike hiss.
The hunter froze in place, and then lay down flat in the grass.
Mike waited for a few moments as the hoofbeats faded away, then kneeled up slowly and lifted his binoculars in the general direction of the buck. He quickly tossed them aside in the grass. "Give me yours. Give me yours."
The hunter unsnapped the binos from the harness, and lobbed them out where Mike could reach them. Then he lay flat again.
It was over. He had known it was a longshot. He had rolled the dice and lost. Simple as that. "Oh well," he thought to himself, "that's hunting." He rested his chin on his crossed arms and waited for confirmation of the worst.
"I think we just got real lucky."
The hunter started quickly from where he lay and looked over to where Mike was kneeling. "How do you mean?" His voice was incredulous.
"Well, I never saw this group. They must have been bedded down. Not sure if there was a buck with them or not, but they took off to our left through the sage then cut back behind us toward the river. If they had gone into the piney hills ahead of us, they'd have taken everything in the country with them. But they didn't." Mike looked over at the hunter. "We got lucky."
"How 'bout the buck?"
"Not sure. Still can't see him. But there's a dry doe out there right about where he should be. She was looking over here for a bit, kinda curious, but now she's feeding again. She won't stand for any more mistakes, that for sure, so we gotta watch her, but if she's still there, I'm bettin' that buck's still there too. I'm thinking he's still bedded down. We gotta find an angle where we can see him, though, and soon." Mike looked at the sun. It was more than halfway gone behind the trees. "Real soon."
The hunter got up on his hands and knees, then eased back slowly to sit on his haunches, crouching forward to keep his silhouette as low in the grass as possible. Mike had taken the lead until now, and had made the right moves, even with the bunch they had spooked. But they'd almost blown the stalk with him taking a back seat. It was crunch time now, and if he was going to get a chance at taking this deer, he wanted to make it or blow it his own way. It was time to make this hunt his own.
"Mike, we're running out of options here. If we had lots of time, we could wait around and let that doe settle down, and then pick our way through this sagebrush until we found an angle on that buck. But we got nowhere near that kinda time left." He looked over at his partner. "I gotta go for broke here."
Mike hunched over into the grass and glanced over. "So, whatcha' thinkin'?"
"Hell, there ain't much to think about," replied the hunter. "We can see those fenceposts from here. They gotta be 800 yards out still. I say we move to the right and line up square between the fenceposts and the bend in the river behind us where we were before. That oughta line us right up with him. If we can find him bedded down, we'll figure out a way to get a shot. If not, we'll have a good idea where he is, anyway. If it comes to it, I say we hunch over and go straight at him 'til he gets up. If we get a shot, we'll take it. If not, I'll buy you a beer in town tonight."
"What about that doe?"
"There ain't nothing to be done about her. Let's just stay down and hope for the best."
Mike pondered for a moment. "Well, I can't think of nothing better."
They moved off to the right, the hunter in the lead. Monitoring the bend in the river, the pair lined up with the fenceposts and settled down in the sage.
"She's still there," said Mike, now in firm possession of the big glass. "Hasn't even looked this way."
"Got a view of the buck?"
Mike didn't answer for a moment.
"Nope, but that doe has her butt to us now. If you're planning on that move, now's a good time."
"About six hundred out now, would you say?" asked the hunter.
Mike looked over. "Going alone?"
The hunter pondered for a moment. "Naw, let's go together, single file. You can work the glass."
The first fifty yards were easy, as a small rise gave them some cover. As they circled the rise, the doe still had her head down, but she had turned broadside. The pair aimed for a clump of sage slightly taller than the rest, and made it there without any apparent effects on the doe.
And then there was nothing but flats, the sun just a fingernail over the horizon.
"OK, here we go," said the hunter. "Let's just move in fast and hard now, and we'll see how far we get before he opens the ball, if he's still there."
The hunter looked behind him, and Mike was smiling. "Ready?"
"Let's do it."
The hunter moved off fast, hunched over as far as possible, rifle held in his right hand, pointed forward, the barrel weaving its way through the brush. His legs burned from the squatting and the pace. He made every attempt to use the available cover, but they were mostly in the open now, playing the dealt hand for all it was worth. At 400 yards, the doe raised her head and looked right at them, and the pair froze, first the hunter, and then Mike right behind them. She stared for a long, leg-burning minute, then lowered her head and began feeding again, her tail flickering every so often.
The hunters began moving forward again, and had traveled only a few yards when she looked up again.
"Three-seventy-five," hissed Mike.
"She's not going to take another one," whispered the hunter. "This is it."
As the doe continued to stare, the last of the sun dropped behind the horizon, the effect like curtains being drawn in a room. The doe lowered her head, and the hunter looked back and made eye contact with Mike.
The hunter took a deep breath, checked the safety on the rifle, and double-checked the power setting on the scope, making sure it was set on three-power. Then he took a moment to clear his head, clenched his jaw, and moved forward.
The doe reacted immediately. This time she looked up for only a second, then she hunched over and took her first leap, pogoing straight away from them toward the piney hills in the distance. The hunter stood up and raised the rifle, instinctively covering the doe, when he heard Mike.
"Off to the left, off to the left. There he is, there he is!"
The buck had gotten up about fifty yards to the left and 75 yards closer than the doe and was trotting slowly away from them. He was strikingly gray in comparison to the doe, big-bodied, with a tall rack and a thick, rut-swollen neck. He stopped, turned semi-broadside for a moment to look back, and then continued trotting away with confused uncertainty.
The hunter had turned his rifle on him, but the buck was headed straight away, tall antlers bouncing against the gray sky as he wove his way through the sage. "He's not giving me a shot." Then a moment later, "He's not stopping." The hunter fell into the sit position to steady his rifle, but the brush was too high. He quickly got up on one knee, with the same result. "I can't get a steady." He looked up at Mike from the kneeling. "I can't get a steady." He placed the butt of the stock on the ground, barrel pointed at the sky. "We're done." And then in a harsh whisper, "Damn!"
"He's slowing down." Mike quickly stood between the hunter and the departing buck and raised the binos. "C'mon and use my shoulder for a rest. C'mon, he's still in range."
The hunter got up and carefully set the forearm of the rifle on Mike's right shoulder. He wrapped his left arm around Mike's neck and grabbed the tip of the forearm hanging in front of Mike's shoulder. He squeezed, and everything tightened up. Then he found the buck in the scope, the animal slowing down to a walk. Then the buck turned semi-broadside, stopped, and looked back to survey sage flats again.
"He doesn't know we're here," whispered Mike. "Can you make the shot?"
"What's your call?" asked the hunter.
"That's about what I think. Dang! That's far."
"Hold a foot high, straight over his shoulder. Do it fast!" Mike still had the binos to his eyes.
The hunter held a foot high, but in the scope caught the breeze blowing the sage from left to right, and adjusted his aim to the left edge of the buck's ribcage. He clicked off the safety, and Mike heard him exhale.
The hunter squeezed the trigger slowly, and the recoil jostled them both.
"Ohhhh. You just missed. It hit right in front of him, just ahead of his shoulders. The elevation was right on, but you shot to the right. He's still there. C'mon, shoot again!"
"This guy is far, Mike."
"Shoot 18 inches to the left" C'mon, you got him if he doesn't move."
The hunter found the buck again, and adjusted his aim to the left. He exhaled slowly, and at the shot, the rifle jostled them both again.
"He's running," said Mike. "How'd it feel?"
"It felt good, but that buck is out there. I'm not sure. I adjusted, got it off nice and steady, but ."
"What? No way."
"I'm telling you, he's down."
"You better not be kidding me."
Mike looked over. "I've seen a lot of deer shot. That guy went down, and hard. You got him!" A big smile broke across Mike's face. "You got him."
"Mike, if that deer is down, I will buy you dinner in town!" The hunter still wasn't sure.
Mike gestured at the waning light. "Not tonight you won't partner."
"You're serious, aren't you? That deer went down?"
Mike smiled. "Let's go see."
They counted 512 steps to the where the deer lay, and when the hunter saw him, he knew why Mike had wanted him to shoot. He was a fine animal, three on one side, four on the other, with two cheaters that made him a three-by-six. They tagged the him, dressed him out, and then each grabbed an antler for the long pull home. It was well after midnight when they finally hoisted him into the bed of the pickup. Cold, hungry, and tired, as they climbed into the old Chevy, the hunter looked back through the rear window to where the buck lay in the bed. He was the luckiest man in the world.
Mike had his forehead leaning against the steering wheel. The hunter put his hand on his shoulder.
Mike looked over, and reached for the ignition as he raised his head.
"T-Bone and a beer, pal. Tomorrow night, I want a T-Bone and a beer."
"You got it partner." The hunter smiled as the engine cranked over and leaned his head back against the cold rear window for the drive home. "You got it."
But the hunter didn't reply. He was already asleep.